David Willetts has been given responsibility for higher education in the new coalition government formed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Willetts, who was Conservative shadow universities secretary before the general election, will attend Cabinet in his new role, which sees science and skills merged into the same brief.
The appointment was confirmed by Downing Street late yesterday following speculation about who would fill the post – and confusion over which department would oversee the sector.
In the event, the universities brief has remained within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, although the Department for Children, Schools and Families has been renamed the Department for Education, headed by Conservative MP Michael Gove.
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, said Mr Willetts would bring a “wealth of experience” and “genuine understanding” to the role.
“He has worked hard to ensure a deep understanding of the needs of staff and students, regularly visiting campuses across the country and closely integrating himself with the sector,” he said.
“Throughout his involvement, he has demonstrated a firm commitment to the student experience and recognised the crucial need to maintain excellence in teaching and research.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, also welcomed Mr Willetts’ appointment, but called on him to close the “sorry chapter” of Labour’s plans for the research excellence framework, in which funding would be partly determined by economic and social “impact”.
Mr Willetts has previously indicated that the Conservatives were in favour of delaying the implementation of the REF to reassess the approach.
Ms Hunt said: “Mr Willetts proved his ability to listen to staff concerns when committing to delay unpopular plans to make university research funding dependent upon economic impact.
“The academic community made clear its view that assessing and funding research in this way is unworkable, and we urge him to put an end to this sorry chapter once and for all.”
Despite the warm welcome, Mr Willetts faces important challenges as the sector reels from recent cuts and uncertainty over the future of funding, including the outcome of the ongoing review of fees and finance led by Lord Browne of Madingley.
Some in the sector have already accused the Lib Dems of performing a U-turn over the issue of tuition fees – which the party had pledged to phase out – after details of their policy compromises with the Conservatives emerged.
The published agreement guiding the coalition states that Lib Dem MPs will be allowed to abstain from any vote on fees if they “cannot accept” the government’s response to the Browne review.
This means that if Lord Browne recommends raising or even removing the cap on fees, the Tories could pass the plans without the Lib Dems voting them down.
The National Union of Students has set up a Facebook group saying that it will “not accept” the party breaking its pre-election pledge on fees.
The group has already attracted more than 6,500 members.
Aaron Porter, president-elect of the NUS, said: “Liberal Democrat candidates made an en masse cast-iron commitment by signing our pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees in the next Parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.
“They were elected to Parliament on that basis and are now duty-bound to honour their promises. It would be intolerable for those MPs to backtrack on their personal pledges to voters.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, which represents post-1992 universities, said: “The coalition agreement that the Liberal Democrats should abstain on any proposals tabled in the House of Commons following Lord Browne’s review of fees, which they dislike, would deliver a Conservative majority for tuition-fee and university-funding reform.
“The new business secretary, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, must now reassure students and universities that the new government will support a fair funding package and that Liberal Democrat MPs will be able to vote in the Commons to support social mobility, participation and a unified system of student support.”
However, other groups – including UUK – praised the “pragmatic and realistic” agreement for paving the way for a proper consideration of Lord Browne’s findings, due this autumn.
A spokesman for the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities said: “If [the government] had gone with the [pre-election] Liberal Democrat approach, then it would have had a policy before the review had even reported.”
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